Tunku Abdul Rahman once said that The Star was a gift from heaven. What he didn’t know was that we thought the same of him too. Here’s an exhibit that captures this special 16-year relationship.
Even with his arthritic limp and failing eyesight, our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj commanded respect.
Other octogenarians would have undoubtedly opted for a more leisurely pace. Not our Prince of Peace, however. There was still a lot to be done for the country, and he knew it.
After his retirement as Prime Minister in 1970, Tunku continued to be active in missionary work. Shortly after, he took up the post of secretary-general of the Islamic Secretariat in Jeddah. When he returned to Malaysia three years later, he seemed to have disappeared into obscurity but later, it was revealed that there was a concerted effort to keep him out of the media. Being the man he was, Tunku took it in his stride.
Fate had other plans for him, however. In his weekly column for The Star, he wrote, “Many more snubs I suffered in silence. Then the little Star fell on my lap and I remained silent no more.”
This happened in 1974, when The Star was still a small English language daily in Penang owned by Datuk Loh Boon Siew, who made his fortune importing Japanese cars and motorbikes.
Loh’s publishing business, however, wasn’t doing quite as well. The Star was a regional paper and its circulation did not extend to the mainland. Loh asked Tunku to acquire controlling interest in the paper and accept the appointment of chairman. Tunku was not a wealthy man but he couldn’t resist the challenge. He asked his old friend, former Sabah chief minister Tun Mustapha Harun for his financial support.
Tunku undertook to write feature articles under the title Looking Back in which he would give his personal account of the growth of Umno and their struggle for Independence. With a flick of his pen, Tunku rescued the fledgling brand and turned it into a national newspaper.
He would remain in the company until his death at the age of 87 on Dec 6, 1990.
As a tribute to this man and his remarkable accomplishments, the Tunku & The Star exhibit was launched at the Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra this week by Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. Members of the media and some of Tunku’s closest friends and relatives were present.
Star Publications (M) Sdn Bhd group managing director and chief executive officer, Datin Linda Ngiam, echoed the sentiments of her colleagues when she said, “To us at The Star, Tunku was not only the nation’s founding father; he was also our chairman and we take great pride in reminding people of that fact.”
“It’s so overwhelming to see all his pictures in one place,” murmured Tunku’s great granddaughter, Sharyn Lisa Shufiyan, 25, as she scanned her surroundings.
“My generation grew up with only one leader (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) while all the other former prime minsters have been reduced to taglines. Tunku has always been Bapa Kemerdekaan, but people need to know his story because it’s more relevant now than ever, especially with the current political situation.”
Granddaughter Tunku Rozani Putra, 50, agreed. She felt that the exhibit made up for the lack in Malaysian history that was taught in school.
“As I walked through it, I could feel the spirit of Independence, I find the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words’ very apt here. On a more personal note, I found Datin Linda’s speech very touching and had me reminiscing about Tok,” she said.
Tunku was, in Ngiam’s speech, no ordinary chairman.
“Tunku wrote all his articles; he did not dictate them. He once said that only two men could read his handwriting,” wrote Tan Sri Datuk Mubin Sheppard in his book Tunku: A Pictorial Biography, adding that these men were the ones who finalised, typed and forwarded his articles to The Star’s head office in Petaling Jaya.
The first article was published on Dec 16, 1974 and described Tunku’s first step as an amateur columnist. Subsequent columns appeared every Monday and their scope was soon extended to include his views and comments of current affairs.
“He was so closely identified with The Star that people referred to the newspaper as Suara Tunku Abdul Rahman,” said Ngiam.
“But Tunku was quick to remind everyone, his fans as well as the powerful personalities he had upset with his no-holds-barred comments, that The Star was not Suara Tunku Abdul Rahman but Suara Rakyat — The People’s Paper.”
According to a posthumous article in the Malaysian Business Magazine, Tunku hated sanctimoniousness or hypocrisy and, for an ex-Prime Minister, he ventured into areas where angels might fear to tread. His column — stated an article in Asiaweek magazine — “permits him to tell all and sundry just what he thinks is wrong with the country.” They dubbed him “the conscience of the nation.”
However, it soon became evident not everyone appreciated his frankness.
“It often gives government officials the jitters. On occasion, senior members of the administration have confessed to a dread of Mondays. Once, his critics even put it about that he should be detained under the Internal Security Act,” read Asiaweek.
The public, on the other hand, loved it.
“We had to print more copies of the newspaper on Monday than any other day,” remarked Ngiam. “He wrote beautifully. He didn’t use big, bombastic words but there were so many lessons you could garner just from one sentence.”
It was, incidentally, to his credit, that she joined The Star’s advertising department in 1985.
“My husband and I used to buy the newspaper every Monday just to read his columns. We followed it religiously. When I told my husband I wanted to work there, he was very keen on the idea because then we could get the Monday newspaper for free!” joked Ngiam, who had met Tunku on several occasions.
Dr Rais recounted a few nuggets of wisdom that Tunku had personally imparted to him.
“He once told me that when you start to write, you must start to accept criticism,” said Dr Rais. “I told him I was not a controversial writer. But he was.’’ Tunku replied that a time would come when one would be controversial in a time of crisis.”
Without fear or favour
Though it may seem hard to believe, The Star was a tabloid (complete with its own Page Three Girl!) before Tunku came along.
“People used to say, oh, you’re from the Penang paper, the mosquito paper — that’s what they called us. Nobody took us seriously,” Ngiam said.
All this changed with Tunku’s presence, however.
“We were different from other newspapers in terms of the way we approached our stories,” revealed Ngiam. “We always looked at things from a different angle. We published any criticisms that were directed against us. We tackled big cases such as corruption. It was all very anti-establishment.”
By 1977, the circulation of The Star had shot up and more outstation bureaus were being set up in Malaysia. The MCA was roped in to provide new machinery and more capital. Tunku, meanwhile, retained his shares and continued to write with passion and insight.
Sharyn, however, believed her great grandfather felt that he was merely carrying out a responsibility (“He wrote in the interest of the people,” she said).
In 1980, the company made a clear profit of over RM1mil. In his column, Tunku said, “We were naturally happy because The Star glittered as a national newspaper, getting a wider range of readers. Our duty was, and still is, to disseminate news, but more than once, because of our enthusiasm, we annoyed high officials and were asked to show cause why The Star should not be closed down.”
It was just as Tunku had predicted — an emerging crisis. Nevertheless, he remained unapologetic through it all.
“I have tried to be helpful and constructive and I am happy to be told by many that it is taken in that spirit. If I appeared aggressive or damaging to some, that I can say is incidental — some people ask for it,” expressed Tunku.
It was obvious Tunku had a way with words. Many have his lines imprinted in their memories, and Ngiam is no exception.
“Unity in diversity . . . that was one of my favourite lines by him. It’s short yet very powerful,” she said.
Institute for Democracy and Affairs (IDEAS) co-founder Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, 26, said, “The exhibition highlights some of his best quotes. I especially liked: ‘It is freedom for the Malayan people, and once this torch of freedom is lit, let us hold it up high so that all around us will glow with radiant happiness’. It is quotes like this which remind us why we are inspired by him.’’
However, no one grasped the importance of Tunku’s quotes more than Sharyn, who said, “All his quotes about harmony and unity — we need to preserve their meaning. They shouldn’t be thrown around mindlessly. The current leaders would have to start walking the talk if they want to use these quotes. Things would have to improve. Otherwise, Tunku’s words would turn into clichés.”
In his speech, Dr Rais said, “The UK’s Daily Telegraph once said that no one would supercede the contributions of this man to this country. I agree with that.”
Ngiam, who counted the days since Tunku’s departure (20 years and nine days), spoke candidly about how many at The Star appreciated his contributions and missed him.
“The Star and many other media covered the funeral from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Setar where he was finally laid to rest,” she said.
“Every newspaper carried pages of stories on Tunku as a patriot, a leader, a friend and a family man. We had something extra. He was our beloved chairman. We will cherish the precious time we had with Tunku and will not forget his sacrifices and achievements.” - By Louisa Lim, Pictures by Lim Hong Leong, Tan Hong Tatt & Kevin Tan
The “Tunku & The Star” Exhibit is open daily (except Mondays) , from 10am to 5.30pm at Block A, Level 3, Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Arkib Negara Malaysia, Jalan Dato’ Onn, Kuala Lumpur, Tel: (03) 2694 7277.